Long, long ago, before there were people and monkeys and snakes that would eat him, Snail was the King. With his impregnable armor always protecting him, his ever-wary eyestalks that no shadow could fool, and his long, strong legs, Snail was the apex predator.
You heard me right. Snail used to have long, strong legs. Fast ones. He could outrun a gazelle, but lucky for them, he has a modest appetite.
What, you don’t believe me? Yes, I know Snail doesn’t have legs and he oozes and goozes around in your garden all day. But that, child, is NOW. Before the grass decided its favorite color was green, Snail ran like the wind.
Oh, how Snail could run. His feet, their nails hard and graceful, would skim the savannah, humming like Bumblebee at her buds. The sound of him passing was like the spear piercing its target: a pop, a murmur, a noiseless glide. The air would follow behind him jealously — yes, even Air was jealous of Snail — pulling at his wake.
But one day, while Snail was out on the high seas, running across the surface of the waves, old Badger was up to a trick.
Now, Badger is wily, but wiles and wisdom need not always walk hand in hand: Badger was not wise, only clever. And when he goes too far in his trickery, his victims suffer in ways he can’t predict.
I tell you this about Badger because it is easy to frown at him, to scold him and wag your finger at him, especially when you hear what he did today. But we are wise, and we can see that Badger is just a clown at heart. A clown with long, hard claws, like pickaxes.
Miles away, at the edge of the horizon, Snail began his journey back. His strong, hairy, muscular legs shed water like clouds shed lightning. In the waves, splashing and flopping with excitement, fish begged Snail as he passed for a chance to breathe air. Sometimes his hairy-knuckled toe would catch on a fish and it would be flung into the sky, able for the very first time to see the sun without a shimmer. It was a lucky fish whose scale was caught by a hangnail on Snail’s bony foot.
Today, Snail decided to challenge himself. Challenges are rare to those best at what they do. He would throw a fish, go home and fetch a frying pan, and be back to catch the fish on her descent. Snail loved a challenge, and he especially loved a challenge that ended with a free lunch.
Eyestalks quivering with anticipation, Snail threw a fish straight up, truer and higher than any flight of any fish before her. She shot upwards like an arrow from a bow, and Snail was off without a backward glance.
He was at the shore in an instant. In his kitchen in the next. And back toward the sea in another, frying pan held tightly between his eyeballs.
By now, Badger had dug a sizable trench in the sand. Maybe, he thought, if I can trip up Snail on his run, everyone will have a good laugh together. Kingfisher, Turtle, Ant and Seagull could all enjoy a show, and he would be their hero. Badger loves nothing more than attention — that’s why he’s always wearing a tuxedo.
In the distance, Snail could see his snack begin her long descent to earth. I’ll be there in no time, he thought with a smirk.
And that was when Snail tripped on Badger’s trench.
He couldn’t have seen it. His eyes were focused tightly on their prey, his frying pan held even more tightly between his eyeballs. Snail did not see the trench, so he tripped.
When you or I trip, it is annoying, embarrassing, sometimes even painful. Right? A stubbed toe is a foe no man may face in bravery. But when Snail tripped, running over the sand like water runs over river rocks, it did not matter if he’d stubbed his toe, because he was, in the blink of an eye, catapulted shell over heels toward the horizon.
Now, Snail spent most of his days on the land. It was on the land he was King. The sea belonged to another, as powerful as Snail but as mean as old Crocodile. Yes, Sea Cucumber, was King of the Ocean then, his mighty fins spread wide, his awesome tentacles snatching up his prey. But Sea Cucumber’s fall from grace is another story for another day.
All this to say, Snail didn’t know how to swim. Why would he bother? His taut rippling legs could carry him over the waves to any island he chose in the blink of an eye. He had never been in the sea, and so he had never yet faced the dangers of salt.
Snail plunged shelllong into a towering wave and his skin membrane began to pucker, just like your fingers when you stay too long in the bath.
Ouch, he cried. Ooo, ooh wee sssssssssssssssss ahhhoooh ahhh HAAAAAA!!!!!!
He scrambled to his feet and began to run back to shore, his frying pan lost, his lunch forgotten; but the damage was done. As he ran, his beautiful, once-slimy membrane wrinkled and shrank, and his shell began to wobble on his back as he grew smaller and smaller.
Salt does Snail (and his sister Slug) no good. Nowadays, as any gardener knows, it’ll kill him. Back then, when he was King of all, he could not be killed, even by salt; but it would shrink him so small that his shell outright fell off. That’s why Slug doesn’t have her shell: she’s loaning it to Snail because he’s still embarrassed to this day.
Snail got back to shore, but by the time he did, he had shriveled down to the size he is today. He was certainly in no shape to be King anymore.
Badger, having seen for the thousandth time that his actions have consequences, snuck away in hopes no one would see him. He dug a hole and hid inside it — and he’s still so scared people will find out what he did that he’s stayed hidden in the earth ever since.
Now, as Snail got smaller, his legs stayed the same. You see, they were just like yours or mine, with skin instead of wet, slimy membrane, like the rest of Snail’s body. They had grown firm and dry over the years of running, and did not shrink with Snail.
Soon, his body got so small that his legs popped right off. Have you ever tried to hold a wet watermelon seed between your fingers? It just pops right out. Snail’s legs that day were two wet watermelon seeds, lean, strong, with calves sculpted as if from stone: they popped right off, no matter how hard Snail tried to hold on to them.
With this last humiliation complete, Snail’s fall was done. He would never be King again — he was too worried he’d trip again, legs or no. And to this day, Snail walks with the utmost caution, sure that the next inch would be his demise. Or the next. Or the next. He walks so slowly that it hardly looks like he’s moving at all.
And the worst part? Kingfisher, Turtle, Ant and Seagull didn’t even see it happen, because they were all at lunch.
Badger hadn’t been invited.